Saturday 15th March 2014 (part one):
How can I have forgotten to mention that when we pulled into the Armidale Tourist Centre last night, we discovered that we had arrived in time for the Autumn Festival? Armidale is part of the New England High Country, perched within the Great Dividing Range, and this area is almost unique in New South Wales as it offers four distinct seasons. The European trees are just beginning to tinge with gold and russet.
Armidale is an interesting town. It has a population of around 25,000, and a guide later told us he had counted 25 churches. It is high country – around 1000 metres above sea level. It is surrounded by areas of natural beauty, with four national parks nearby. It was originally inhabited by the Anaiwan and Gumbayniggir indigenous tribes, and then began a pastoral and grazing history, having first been settled by Europeans in the 1830s after the explorer John Oxley recommended it. As well, it is a seat of learning and education – it has its own university and many colleges and boarding schools.
We had hoped to visit NERAM (the New England Regional Art Museum) before other festival activities got under way. One of the challenges when we are on the road is that museums and galleries open 10-4, either too late if we are moving on, and too early if we are just arriving, so we need to be in town for a couple of days. NERAM houses the Howard Hinton Collection, a bequest of some 1200 works of Australian art from the 1880s to the 1940s. We set off on foot, only to discover that we needed a half hour each way to walk to the gallery. (Blast those ‘this map is not to scale‘ leaflets!). We abandoned the attempt, thinking we would catch it up on Monday. Guess what, when the time came, we discovered the gallery is closed on Mondays. Some things are not meant to be. Something for another visit.
Back in the centre of town, it was time to see how the locals play. And ‘play’ they did, beginning with a massed pipe performance featuring the bands from all the towns of the high country. Many people in the New England region have Celtic roots. They played outside the court house, but I will refrain from making the obvious joke. It was actually stirring stuff.
Then it was time for the street parade. Some of my American followers may have a little laugh at how we do it here, but it was a great thing to see and brought everyone out on to the streets lining the route. It took around an hour and half to pass by.
The parade kicked off with a police escort, leading in one of the pipe bands – those guys must have a reputation. Then came a parade of vintage and veteran vehicles. Judging by the number plates, some had come from interstate to show them off, but you can bet that Grandpa has a number of these hanging around in the farm shed. Then a parade of nations, most of them in national dress – I am guessing that a number would be international students from the university, but plenty would also be locals. Then float after float of schools from pre-school through to high school, charities, organisations, local businesses and so on. We took dozens of photographs, and I feature just a few here. It finished with a parade of vintage farm machinery, harking back even to the days of steam.
Then we scampered down to the fairground. Actually, we had been here the night before to watch the official opening, which had a rather low attendance – but hey! The local mayor giving his spiel is just another form of a political speech. There was a local singer afterwards, and a laser show, but wouldn’t you know it? It actually rained, and we had not brought an umbrella, so after our big day on the road, we chose to go back to our motel instead.
It was great this time to see the ground filled with families and happy children. No prizes for guessing why they were so happy, and I could tell the parents were forking out big time for the rides and show bags. We didn’t hang around though, as we had discovered than an hour down the road, another country town was having its annual agricultural show. More about that in part two of this busy day.